A knee brace is a support that can be worn to reduce knee pain, prevent injuries, and help you recover after an injury. There are different types of knee braces (e.g., a motion control brace, a knee immobilizer, and several more) which are composed of a variety of materials and offer a range of knee joint support levels.
You and your doctor can decide if and when you should wear a knee brace based on the condition of your leg and knee. While knee braces can be beneficial, sometimes using one can actually cause more harm than good.
Types of Knee Braces
The structures in your knee can become damaged or dislocated in an accident or due to a fall, and a knee brace might be needed as you heal. Your healthy knee joint can also be injured due to an intense blow during athletic activities. The knee may also be susceptible to an injury due to an underlying condition.
The different types of knee braces differ based on their function and level of support. Certain ones protect the knee to prevent damage, others support the knee to control pain. Some braces stabilize the knee if it's prone to injury, and some immobilize the knee to optimize healing after an injury.
In general, a knee brace should be selected based on the situation. The device should help manage and distribute the pressure around your knee.
A prophylactic knee brace, like a knee pad, is used to protect your knee if you are going to be in a situation with a high risk of having a knee injury, like in a contact sport where your knee is likely to be hit. These knee braces can be used even if you don't have any problem with your knee but want to take steps to protect it.
Prophylactic knee braces generally have padding, especially on the patellar bone, to shield your knee from damage due to direct impact.
A knee unloader brace is typically used for controlling pain due to inflammatory conditions like tendonitis, knee osteoarthritis, patellofemoral or iliotibial band stress syndrome, and chondromalacia patellae (CMP). This type of brace helps shift the pressure and weight on your knee joint to reduce pain.
There are several types of unloader braces, such as:
- A patellar motion control brace with a J-pad in the front to gently lift the patella can be used if you have patellar tendonitis.
- Iliotibial band stress syndrome causes pain on the side of your knee and might be relieved with a small band around the lower part of the knee joint. The band helps compress the iliotibial band where it inserts into your shin, decreasing the mechanical forces acting upon it.1
Unloader knee braces are for comfort. They don't protect the knee from a direct impact or from overstretching. Be sure to consult with your doctor or physical therapist as you decide which type of unloader brace is most suited for your condition.
A functional brace is used to stabilize the knee joint. In doing so, this brace can help prevent a knee injury if you are at high risk due to a structural issue in or around your knee, like weak ligaments or a tendency for knee dislocation.
There are different types of functional braces, and the best one for you depends on your knee problem and your anticipated activity.
Motion control brace: If you have sprained or overstretched the ligaments on the side of your knee, your doctor may recommend a motion control brace. This is a neoprene sleeve with metal supports on the inside and outside that help support the ligaments. It's often used for activities that require pivoting, stopping/starting, or repetitive bending of the knee.
Patella control brace: If you've had a dislocated patella, patellofemoral stress syndrome, knee arthritis, or CMP, a patella control brace can be used to reduce motion of the bone. This type of brace is a neoprene sleeve worn over the knee. It has a cutout that exposes and holds the patella in place during activities like walking, running or squatting.
After knee surgery like a meniscus repair or an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair, a knee brace may help immobilize the joint so it can heal properly. A Bledsoe brace or a knee immobilizer may be worn initially. After healing, a functional brace can be worn during athletic activity.
Bledsoe brace: A Bledsoe brace has straps that wrap around the thigh and shin and metal support brackets on the inside and outside of the knee joint. A small mechanism can lock the knee into full extension, where it stays for the initial period after surgery.
As healing progresses and more movement can be safely tolerated, the locking mechanism can be unlocked to allow the knee to bend a specified amount.
Knee immobilizer: A knee immobilizer is a long cloth brace that runs the length of the shin and thigh. It has metal support struts on the inside and outside parts of the brace; self-fastening straps hold the knee immobilized in place. The benefit of an immobilizer as compared to a plaster cast is that it can be removed to allow gentle motion during healing.
Tips for Using a Knee Brace
Consistency can be an issue when it comes to getting the most out of your knee brace, and about 25% of people who wear one for a medical purpose report minor complications or problems with using their brace.3
Reasons some people end up stopping wearing their knee brace include:5
- Skin irritation
- Poor fit
- Lack of relief
- Discomfort when wearing it
The following can help you avoid these concerns.
Wearing the right brace and getting a good fit are key to ensuring you get the benefits from your brace that you seek and that the brace is as comfortable (and effective) as possible.
Your doctor and/or physical therapist will guide you as to what type of support you need and how you should use it. They can also check the fit of your brace and determine if adjustments or a different size is needed.
Know What to Expect
Knowing what your knee brace is supposed to do for you can help you assess its effectiveness and help you use it the right way. Different knee braces may look similar, but function doesn't always correspond to appearance. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist and make sure you have an understanding of the purpose of your knee brace.
Get the Timing Right
Wearing your brace when it is most likely to help, not just when you think you need it, can also help. You may need to wear your brace all day or just for certain activities. Wearing it too much or not enough can cause problems.
For example, wearing your brace for unnecessarily long stretches of time can cause skin abrasion. And letting it limit your activity for months on end if you don't have to can result in muscle atrophy (shrinking) or joint stiffness.
On the other hand, taking your brace off before your knee joint is ready can impair healing. And neglecting to wear it when you are susceptible to an injury means that you could end up with knee damage. Talk to your doctor or therapist about whether you should wear your brace while:
A knee brace isn't the right choice for everyone. Some medical conditions can make you susceptible to having adverse effects from wearing a knee brace. And in some cases, knee braces aren't effective at all.5
If you have severe pain in your legs or diminished sensation, such as due to peripheral neuropathy, a knee brace might not be right for you. That's because you might not be able to sense a small cut or pressure from the brace, and a wound can worsen without you realizing it.
Vascular insufficiency may also make wearing a knee brace problematic. You might have diminished blood flow while you're wearing your knee brace, and this could lead to long-term vascular issues.
You also need to be cautious if you have bone deformities or congenital bone malformations. The shape and structure of a knee brace may be standardized in a way that leads to joint damage if your knee joint is atypical in its structure.
Knee braces can provide relief from discomfort and protect your knee from injuries in many different circumstances. It's important that you use your brace correctly and that you stay in touch with your doctor or physical therapist about your changing needs so you can get the maximum benefit from wearing your brace.
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